A decade of relative peace in Indian-controlled Kashmir is being shattered by a sudden spike in murders, some execution-style, that today spurred schools and shops across the territory to go on strike, and raised fears of a return to dark days of turmoil.
Indian authorities say the murders are carried out by a shadowy Islamist splinter group they call Lashkar-e-Islam. But separatist and militant groups in Kashmir deny the existence of Lashkar and warn instead that the Indian Army is actually resuming its previously successful tactics of a covert war against them.
Mufti Mohammed Sayeed, the chief minister of Kashmir, met today with Indian military, police, and intelligence officials and he vowed to take “all out measures” to stop the killings.
The murder victims are both civilians and former militants located around Sopore, long a locus of separatist activity. An extra 600 Indian security forces have been deployed there in recent days, and officials are offering rewards of some $15,000 for information leading to the arrest of two suspects.
Indian authorities claim it was Lashkar – supposedly a spin-off of Hizbul Mujahideen, the largest militant group in Kashmir – that started the murders last month. They have accused two militants of plastering warning posters around Sopore that said that cellphone towers were used to track and finger rebels. Shortly after, two civilians who helped run the cell towers were shot.
That set off a month of murders whose victims slowly morphed from civilians to ex- militants. Last week, three of four people shot in the back of the head were part of the long-established anti-India Hurriyat Conference, a political group that advocates separation.
Yet since last month, Hizbul, the United Jihad Council (an umbrella group of militants), and the Hurriyat Conference have questioned the explanations given for the killings, saying the logic of militants killing fellow Kashmiri separatists is cockeyed. The groups have all denounced the targeting of cellphone towers, and said after conducting detailed reviews of their ranks that there is no splinter group.
The former chief minister of Kashmir, Omar Abdullah, who cooperated closely with the government of India while in office, says the murders point to a revival of the Indian Army’s counterinsurgency tactics of the late 1990s. At the time, the Army successfully “turned” many young Kashmiri separatists against their leaders.
Kashmir has a long history of brutality on both sides. Separatists say the recent murders echo the style of the "Ikhwanis," the government-sponsored Kashmiri militias that killed hundreds of rebels and activists in the 1990s.
Mr. Abdullah, who for a number of years stoutly opposed militants and separatists and sided with Indian authorities, said today that "There are apprehensions that Ikhwanis [pro-India gunmen drawn from the Kashmiri population] are being reinvented.”
Kashmir, located in the foothills of the Himalayas and once known as “Happy Valley,” has been a disputed territory between Pakistan and India since 1947. After years of insurgency, during which much of its previous multi-ethnic solidarity, praised by Mohandas Gandhi, has disappeared, it has become a 98 percent Muslim region with a population that deeply resents Indian Army occupation.
A number of Indian analysts close to the Army are accepting the official “splinter group” explanation for the murders in Sopore, including Ajai Sahni, executive director of the New Delhi-based Institute of Conflict Management:
[He] said that a new generation of militants could be emerging who are trying to join militant groups or win backing from Pakistan by staging the killings.
"These youngsters are likely self-radicalized over the Internet and do not have necessary linkages to established terrorist formations for recruitment, and therefore seek to give positive proof of their commitment," he said.
Meanwhile, concern is rising over posters similar to those in Sopore, and attributed to an unknown group called Tehreek-i-Taliban, that are showing up in part of Kashmir and warning gas station owners not to refill the vehicles of Army and police. Other posters have appeared that warn females not to wear "modern clothes" or to watch TV.
Among ordinary Kashmiris, a statement last month by the Indian Defense Minister Manohar Parrikar has been making the rounds, since it appears to favor a new policy of counterinsurgency: "We have to kill terrorists with terrorists. Why should my soldiers do it?" Mr. Parrikar asked.
So far no public arrests or detentions of local Kashmiris have been announced as evidence of the government's case.